A film about the devastation wrought by the Japanese Army on the city of Nanking in 1937 ought to be disturbing. After all, In the space of a few weeks, the invaders murdered about a quarter-million civilians, raped some 20,000 women and utterly destroyed the capital of China (as the city was then). But for the courageous intervention of a small band of Western missionaries, doctors and a few businessmen, those numbers would have gone much higher. In short, the "Rape of Nanking" is one of the terrible scars on the 20th Century.
And to a certain extent the new documentary Nanking, which opens today at Film Forum, tells this story unflinchingly, with candor and passion. But almost from the film's opening shots, there is something painfully upsetting about the way directors Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman have chosen to present this story and the result, I think, detracts from their intended message, albeit in a subtle way. The film opens with a group of actors in a large room that looks at first glance rather disconcertingly like a high school gymnasium. They slowly take their seats and begin to read from the actual writings of the men and women who spearheaded the effort to create a safe zone for the civilian population of Nanking. Throughout the remainder of the film, Guttentag and Sturman will cut between the testimony of actual survivors of the Japanese onslaught, newsreel and home movie footage of the events as they happened, and close-ups of the actors reading from the witnesses' letters, journals, diaries.
In fact, what we are seeing in those acted sequences is a staged reading of these materials. But the film never identifies it as such and the filmmakers have chosen to frame the actors, who are wearing period clothes, in tight close-ups so that we never see the audience at the reading, never actually know what we are seeing while these scenes take place.
These choices, which are at the heart of the film's structure and therefore inseparable from every other aesthetic choice Guttentag and Sturman make, are troubling for several reasons. Most obviously, we are never informed of the reality of what we are seeing; it's sort of a cheap way to make a Hollywood film about Nanking without having to recreate the terrible reality. (Granted, the opening pre-performance shots alert us that something unconventional is happening, but the film never returns to a long shot that would situate the actors in a theatrical space. Rather, the close-ups seem designed for the explicit purpose of integrating them into a cinematic continuum with the actual witnesses and the period footage.)
Second, the cross-cutting between actors and real participants creates an unfortunate moral equivalence between the actual survivors and people impersonating survivors. I would also argue that the use of on-screen actors inadvertently lends credence to the ultra-right Japanese militarists who still insist that nothing out of the ordinary happened in Nanking; when you mix modes like this, you are unwittingly casting doubt on how an audience is supposed to read the film's various registers.
Finally, to get more practical and less theoretical, except for Woody Harrelson, who reads the words of Dr. Bob Wilson, an American who stayed in Nanking to keep the city's only still-functioning hospital alive, Jurgen Prochnow, who reads from the diaries of John Rabe, a pro-Nazi businessman who led the committee that created and supervised the safety zone, Stephen Dorff and John Getz, who read the words of two of the missionaries, the acting is too florid, too . . . actorly. The worst offender by far is Mariel Hemingway, who positively throbs with emotion every time she opens her mouth, and bobs her head enough to give any viewer motion sickness. I'm reminded of the absolutely deplorable Holocaust documentary, Genocide, an Oscar-winner needless to say, in which Elizabeth Taylor practically sobs throughout her narration and Elmer Bernstein's score jabs you in the ribs to cue you when to tear up. (By the way, Philip Marshall's score for Nanking is one of the film's strengths, intelligent and understated.)
Yet, for all its shortcomings, Nanking is a film that should be seen. Despite the central conceit, the film is intelligently structured and the material is inherently fascinating. It is unlikely that another film on this subject is going to be made any time soon. Given its 90-minute running time, the film manages to convey the grim and terrible reality of what happened in Nanking 70 years ago this month. If there are oversimplifications, they are minor and unavoidable; if you want the entire gut-wrenching story, you should start with Iris Chang's book The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, as the filmmakers wisely did. (John Rabe's diaries are also in print.) There are many moments in this film that will cost you sleep and it's definitely not something to see on a full stomach. But that is what the 20th Century was. As the American short-story writer Lee K. Abbott wrote, "This is the 20th Century, pal. Bad is its middle name."